After frigid flight, aviator met with warm reception

Pilot reached North Pole after journey in open plane

May 03, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Montgomery County plans to honor hometown hero Gus McLeod today at Montgomery Air Park, where he began his history-making flight to the geographic North Pole, where all Earth's longitudinal lines meet, in an open-cockpit airplane.

But McLeod, the first to accomplish such a feat, is making plans to retrieve the biplane he left on an ice floe that is drifting about 12 miles a day toward Norway.

The engine of McLeod's 1939 PT 17 Boeing Stearman conked out during the final approach to 86 Degrees North, an unmanned emergency refueling station above the Arctic Circle that was the first stop on his return trip. He landed unharmed, but the impact cracked the struts that connect the wheels to the body of the plane.

With no way to repair the engine, his main and backup Global Positioning System units malfunctioning and no safe landing gear, McLeod climbed into his support plane and continued to Ottawa, where he took a series of flights the rest of the way home. He landed back at Montgomery Air Park April 23 to an elaborate welcoming ceremony -- the first of many.

Polar flights in enclosed airplanes have become common since the first pilot accomplished it in 1937, but no one had done it in an open cockpit until McLeod flew his converted crop duster north last month. Last year, McLeod reached the magnetic North Pole, the spot compasses point to, which lies about 1,200 miles away from the geographic pole.

Since his return two weeks ago, McLeod has appeared on television shows, radio talk shows and at a news conference at the Washington headquarters of the National Geographic Society, a sponsor of the two-week, 3,500-mile journey.

Monday, the Gaithersburg City Council designated April 17 -- the day he arrived at the pole -- Gus McLeod Day and hung a congratulatory banner across the street in front of City Hall. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, accompanied by members of Montgomery County's State House delegation, are to declare a countywide Gus McLeod Day and present the pilot with plaques and certificates at a 10 a.m. ceremony today.

McLeod, 45, took off April 5, carrying the flag of the city of Gaithersburg and an urn containing the ashes of Doug Loring Duff, a flying buddy who died when his traffic plane crashed near Bowie in November 1998. Duff had promised to fly the support plane when he and McLeod talked about making the North Pole journey.

The aviator, who owns a surgical supply store, had a specially designed cowling placed over the engine to keep it from freezing, and wore a suit to ward off the cold. The suit didn't provide enough warmth, but the insulation on the cowling provided too much.

McLeod, a pilot since he was 17, suffered frostbite on his right index finger and under his chin. But his engine overheated at one point, and some of the oil gaskets blew out from stress when the atmospheric temperature plummeted.

Despite those problems, McLeod made it to the geographic North Pole about 9 p.m. April 17. He circled the pole three times, landed nearby, scattered Duff's ashes, planted the Gaithersburg flag and soon started home.

Later that night, on the leg to 86 Degrees, the engine cut out once and McLeod restarted it. It cut out a second and third time. The fourth time, he couldn't get it started again.

McLeod said yesterday he will take the same plane that carried his support crew to try to salvage the Stearman.

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